Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Home Team Advantage?

Gail Has No Problem With Blood

Make George's Cravable Breakfast Sausage

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

Make Doug's Winning Mussels

Tom Colicchio Answers Your Restaurant Wars Qs

Gail: It Wasn't Keriann's Day

Make Doug's Winning Braised Pork!

Gail: We Had a Tough Job This Week

Make Katsuji's Authentically Delicious Stuffing

Hugh: The Demise of Cornwallis and Aaron

Make Gregory's Winning Dumplings

Richard: Chefs Please Follow Instructions

Richard Tries Money Ball Soup

Make a Home Run-Worthy Popcorn Crème Brule

Hugh: Where There's a Will There's a Fenway

Gail: Keriann and Aaron Were Being ---holes

Make the Winning Surf and Turf

Gail: We're Taking No Prisoners

Richard Goes From Player to Announcer

Tom Talks Boston

Gail: There Was No Season 11 Underdog

Hugh Wants Nick to Be Kind to Himself

Gail: It Was Difficult to Let Go of Shirley

Big Easy to Ocean Breezy

Gail: The Final Four Are Like Our Children

Emeril Is Proud to Serve Shirley's Dish

Hugh: Enough With the Mexican Food Hate

Gail on Favreau, Choi, and Finding Yourself

Hugh on Poor Boys, Swingers and Food Trucks

Emeril: Nick's Choice Is Part of the Game

Nick's License to Immune

Hugh's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

Hugh Decides Eight Is Enough

Gail Talks OvenGate

Dookie Chase Makes Everybody Cry

Fin, Found, Floundering

What Danny Meyer Taught Gail Simmons

'Top Chef' Goes to Hog Heaven

Gris Gris Boucherie Ya Ya

Brian and Travis' Dud Spuds

Home Team Advantage?

Tom Colicchio assesses the veterans' advantages and disadvantages.

As you all know, I am seldom at the Quickfire Challenges, so I don’t see what goes on there until I watch the edited episodes. Watching this one, I was struck by how ticked off the chefs were when they were told that Stefan, CJ, and Josie were going to be competing alongside them. They immediately started bitching -- they were not shy about it. I get it -- the chefs were concerned that the new (i.e. old) three would have an advantage over them because the three had been through the process before.

 It might seem that CJ, Josie, and Stefan have an advantage… but do they? Let’s break this down, pluses first:

· These three know what to expect. Yes, they do. They’ve already had plenty of practice making dishes under severe time pressure, in teams, solo, with unexpected ingredients, in weird locations, for world class chefs. Yes, they’ve been through it before. For what that’s worth.

· They have experienced Judges' Table. Yes, they’ve all been there for both winning and losing dishes. They know what it feels like. For what that’s worth.

· They know the mechanics of the show. They’ve lived in a house with competitors, they’ve had to collaborate with their competitors, they’ve been through the rigors of this very intense competition. All true. Again, for what that’s worth.

They also face the following potential pitfalls not faced by the rest of the contestants:

· While we judges always strive for complete objectivity, it’s hard not to expect more from them because they’ve been here before (Quail is small, Stefan? Did you really use that as an excuse for overcooking it? Newsflash, buddy: It’s a quail. Deal with it.)

· They may not display the same edge as the new contestants, precisely because they have been here before, and they may be feeling a bit above it all (not naming names here… pretty self-evident…)

· They may think that they “know what I’m looking for.” If they’re saying that, then they don’t know what I’m looking for. Here’s what I’m “looking for”:  the same thing anyone dining in a restaurant is looking for, i.e., food that is cooked andseasoned correctly, and that has been made from an interesting, thoughtful and creative combination of ingredients. That’s it. There’s no angle, no hidden agenda, nothing to figure out that makes it an advantage to have competed before.  

I think the minuses cancel out the pluses.  I think it’s a pretty even playing field, and everyone is going to have to bring it.  I think this assessment was born out by the Elimination Challenge, in which the Red Team wound up one of the two teams on the bottom. Too many components in their dish, overcooked quail, not enough cherries in a sauce they made a quart of (so the proportions were way off)… I’m not sure that changing their concept midstream was the great idea they thought it would be.

This week’s was a good Elimination Challenge. Seattle is known for its seafood, plus we shot this episode at the beginning of the summer, when we also had beautiful produce such as rhubarb and morels at our disposal. I was glad to have a challenge right at the get-go that could highlight Seattle in this way. The challenge gave us a chance, further, to see the chefs’ product… and we did have some great results.

The chefs did well overall. As for Blue Team, there were a few noteworthy reasons for their win. They had a great concept for the dish -- they didn’t overcomplicate it, as there is a tendency to do in such team challenges, when every chef on the team wants to display his or her culinary point of view. In contrast to such overwrought dishes, the Blue Team’s dish seemed as though it had been conceived and made by one person. Each person did one thing to contribute to the dish -- one made the fish, one the dashi and one the prawns, so they had not only a well-conceived dish but also a good gameplan for executing it. And they worked collaboratively. John looked out for the team, for example, noticing that Kuniko had burnt the chili oil and bringing it to her attention with enough time for her to make a new one.

Our favorite part of that dish, hands down, was the cod -- Kuniko was the clear winner for that. The technique of poaching fish in oil (or duck fat) reflects a relatively modern way of cooking -- it’s been around for the last ten years or so. So the idea of poaching the fish in chili oil was a very good one. To do it well, though, the chef must understand that the bottom of the pan is hotterthan the oil itself, so if the fish is sitting on the bottom of the pan, itcould become overdone. Making the fish well requires the discipline to let it cook slowly, and it’s not something every chef could pull off. In preparing the cod perfectly, as Kuniko did, she showed really nice technique. This is why she won.

The losing Gray Team had a basically good dish. The garnishes were nicely done and the dish was seasoned well. Unfortunately, though, the fish was completely overcooked. The terms “overcooked” or “overseasoned” are never the end of the story in and of themselves -- whether they are a deal-breaker that will get a person sent home is always a matter of degree: the dish could be slightly overcooked or overseasoned… or it could be hammered. Stefan’s quail was somewhat overcooked; Jeffrey’s halibut was hammered. Had Jeffrey’s fish not been so drastically overcooked, Stefan would most likely have been sent home. His neck was saved in this challenge by the presence of a worse offender. Furthermore, in stark contrast to the Blue Team, the Gray Team did not display good teamwork. Brooke saw that Jeffrey’s fish was overdone and didn’t say anything to him. She just let the fish go out to the judges that way. The teammates should have been looking out for one another’s food, particularly when one of the components was something as delicate as halibut. I understand that it was early in the season and the chefs are just getting to know one another, but this was a team challenge, and Brooke wound up at Judges' Table with one of the two worst dishes, which is not a place she wants to be.But all in all, as I wrote above, I thought the chefs were off to a good start. Will the new (old) chefs pick up their game? Will Carla lower her decibel level in the kitchen before someone clocks her? Will Micah’s game face ever actually intimidate anyone? None of that is important; stay tuned to see what the chefs cook next, which is what matters. Have a good week, all.

Gail Simmons Won't Be Pushed Around

So she's going to take more time shopping at Whole Foods -- and ask for the best of Melissa's basket and Adam's shrimp.

Bravotv.com: Let's dive right in. How did it feel to go shopping?
Gail Simmons: Shopping at Whole Foods was fantastic and hilarious. It made us realize that you need to be strategic, which was the point of the exercise for us. They gave us 30 minutes, but we took a little longer. We didn't let the producers push us around! We’re not contestants and we weren't going to stand for it! So, you realize how little time you have, and how big Whole Foods can be. You spend a lot of time running around.

 

My strategy with my pantry was to get a lot of fresh, delicious food that you can cook in lots of different ways. A good balance of proteins, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, fresh herbs, grains. But I didn't want to get too much. Everyone has different strategies; Padma got a ton of different ingredients. Tom's pantry was very pared down. Richard and I were somewhere in the middle.

 

Bravotv.com: Let's start by talking about the two dishes that came from your pantry?
GS: Katsuji and Melissa. They used the same protein, but their dishes were very different. They both used shrimp which one of the proteins that I bought. I bought something else too, something that I know has given people trouble in the past (which is why I specifically chose it) -- chicken wings. And I really wanted people to use them. Instead, they chose the easy way out because shrimps cook quickly.

Melissa's used a lot of fresh vegetables, which I was hoping she would: dill, mint, artichoke. I was so excited about all of it. I think it was beautifully done, a lovely salad with that little shrimp on top with spiced yogurt. But it was just a salad with a quick-cooking seafood. It was so similar to what she had done in Restaurant Wars when she made a scallop with grapefruit salad. I believe she could have done so much more. Melissa keeps saying she wanted to focus on her knife skills, and, of course, your knife skills have to be precise. But I need to see more than just knife skills. I want to see cooking skills, I want to see roasting skills, braising skills. I want to see her hands get a little dirtier and her dishes not be as superficial. It was a light, lovely dish. I was happy to eat it for lunch. But when you're competing against six other really talented chefs, we all want to see a little more depth. Katsuji on the other hand went big. He used his ingredients in a really powerful way. The potato salad, the poached shrimp had bold seasoning and I loved how they went together. It was a great dish. It may not have been the best of the day, but I was actually really happy with what he chose to make.

 

Bravotv.com: So for the rest, let's talk about who was on top and who was on bottom.

GS: At the top there was Gregory who really was going for Padma's heart there. He did great with his coconut milk curry. A really balanced, powerful dish. But it's something we’ve seen from Gregory many times in the past. In fact, in the first challenge he made a similar spicy curry dish with chicken. As much as we thought it was a delicious bowl of food, it was so typical of what we expect from Gregory. George's food was really exciting for us. This was my first time tasting his food and meeting him on Top Chef. He did a great job. The kebab was moist, seasoned really well, and the lentils were beautiful too. My only small issue with the dish is I couldn't understand why he separated the lentils from the kebab in two separate dishes. Why not put lentils on the plate and the kebab right on top, with a dollop of the yogurt? It seemed a little bit disconnected to me. But all-in-all, a really strong dish. Doug had the winning dish of the night. He used Richard's crazy pantry in a way that I thought was smart, clear-cut, and creative. The chorizo and mussels and peppers, just how Tom said, go together well, as do the cauliflower and the garlic. There was sweetness, there was spice, it was light and fresh but had a soulful, rustic flavor we all loved. You could see use of technique. On the bottom were dishes that tried to stretch and didn’t come through. Mei did a great job overall, except her lamb was undercooked. You want lamb medium, medium rare, but the center of that meat was raw to the point where the texture was chewy and almost cold. It would have been better if she had been able to cook it five minutes longer. We talked about Melissa's mistakes already, which also landed her on the bottom. I totally applaud Adam for trying to make a quick-flash marinade. He's been in the middle for so long and he thought "I gotta go big or I gotta go home." He tried to go big and unfortunately, he went home because of that technique. I get the idea of what he was doing, I don't doubt that it could've been successful if it were perhaps done in a different setting, with a little more control. But the flash marinade of his shrimp did not cook it as needed. It was still grey, it was still raw, and the texture of raw shrimp is not appealing. It's squeaky, it's squishy, and it becomes sort of mushy. We wanted it firm and cooked through. It's not like fish that you can eat sashimi-style Unfortunately Adam's hard work, his big risk sent him home.

I will miss him. I think he's an incredibly articulate, clever chef. I think he has an extraordinary career ahead of him. I'm excited to see him back in New York City. I can't wait to eat his food again. Also I want to say of this entire episode that was it was thrilling to see our superfans in the kitchen. We've never let people come into the kitchen in that way before, even though people ask us all the time. It brought so much good energy to have basically a live audience with us for the day. Everyone was so psyched. It was amazing to be around people who really love the show, to let them eat food from our talented chefs. SO much fun!